APTN National News
OTTAWA–The Auditor General of Canada has found that the federal Aboriginal Affairs department has no idea whether its program to make healthy foods cheaper is working in the North where some residents have been forced to scrounge in dumps as a result of the high prices at local grocery stores.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson found that the federal department has no idea whether this food subsidy program is making food more accessible and affordable and has no clue whether northern retailers are passing on the subsidy provided by Ottawa on to Northern residents.
In his fall 2014 report, Ferguson found that the department doesn’t even have a definition for affordability and never bothered to analyze the profit margins of Northern food retailers to determine whether they are making money off the subsidy or passing it on.
“Affairs and Northern Development Canada has not managed the program to meet its objective of making healthy foods more accessible to residents of isolated northern communities as it has not identified eligible communities on the basis of need,” said Ferguson’s report. “Neither has it managed the program to meet its objective of making healthy foods more affordable as it has not defined affordability nor has it verified that northern retailers are passing on the full subsidy to consumers. As well, the department has not captured the information needed to manage the program or measure its success.”
The Auditor General’s findings are a devastating indictment on Aboriginal Affairs which created the $60 million-a-year Nutrition North northern-food subsidy program in 2011 to help mainly Indigenous residents of isolated Northern communities where Tropicana orange juice can cost $14, Dole peaches in strawberry gel for $11, Green Giant canned cream corn $5. Nutrition North bases its subsidy rates on the remoteness of the communities it serves.
The auditors found that the department doesn’t collect reliable data on the profit margins of retailers in order to determine whether consumers are benefiting from the full subsidy.
The report calls that a “missed opportunity” to ensure the program is transparent and to ease some long-standing public skepticism about the program’s effectiveness and efficiency.
Ferguson’s auditors also found problems with the way Aboriginal Affairs determined how much each community is subsidized.
Some places, such as the isolated Nunavut community of Grise Fiord, qualify for the full $16-per-kilogram subsidy. Other less remote communities get subsidies as low as five cents a kilogram.
The auditors zeroed in on two remote communities in northern Ontario, both about the same distance to the nearest town and lacking year-round road access. One is eligible for a subsidy of $1.60 per kilogram; the other only five cents a kilogram.
The department told Ferguson’s team it has looked at expanding the full subsidy to around 50 fly-in northern communities, but doing so would increase the cost of the program by $7 million each year.
The Conservative government has defended the Nutrition North program, saying it has given more people in isolated and remote communities’ access to healthy and perishable foods.
But the auditors found some decidedly unhealthy foods are being subsidized. Ice cream, bacon and processed cheese spread qualify for the lower of the program’s two subsidy levels.
Other foods that used to be subsidized under the food mail program, such as canned goods and rice, have been dropped.
The Conservative government, which is made aware of the contents of auditor’s reports in advance and given the opportunity to respond before they are released publicly, announced last week it would spend another $11.3 million on the program over the next year.
Conservative MP Mark Strahl, the parliamentary secretary for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, denied that the timing of the announcement had anything to do with the release of Ferguson’s report.
-With Files from The Canadian Press